FILM SOCIALISME, etc., 40 Years Ago and Now

The outrage of the mainstream press in Cannes about Godard’s Film Socialisme was quite predictable. In his Scanners, Jim Emerson has even gone to the trouble of compiling excerpts from 15 New York Times reviews of Godard’s films, spread out over half a century and all offering variations on the same complaint: “[approaching] the films themselves as though they are puzzles designed to frustrate (and to eventually be ‘solved’), then [blaming] Godard for not doing a better job of solving them himself because they’re too hard.” And it was apparent even to me, witnessing everything from Chicago, that this anger was only intensified by the minimalist pidgin-English subtitles and Godard’s last-minute cancellation of his press conference. I was reminded of the near-riot once occasioned by a screening of his Un Film comme les autres (perhaps the emptiest and the most talkative of all of Godard’s films to date),  in New York’s Lincoln Center in 1968, thanks in part to an attempt at adding an English voiceover on the spot that made the French and English equally incomprehensible. Which suggests that Godard’s aesthetic and ideological provocations often help to clear the way for still other sources of anger that may or may not be related to them.… Read more »

Cul-de-sac

From the Chicago Reader (October 1, 1994). — J.R.

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Roman Polanski’s second British film (Repulsion was the first) is a mean little absurdist comedy (1966) set on a remote Northumberland island; it’s also one of the best and purest of all his works. An odd couple (Donald Pleasence and Françoise Dorleac) living in an isolated castle find their world invaded by two doomed gangsters on the run (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran), and the ensuing standoffs are funny, cruel, disquieting, and unpredictable, especially after various other unwelcome guests turn up. Stander is especially goodthis may be the definitive performance of the blacklisted gravel-voiced character actor, best known for his 30s and 40s work. With Robert Dorning and Iain Quarrier; watch for Jacqueline Bisset as one of the guests. 111 min. (JR)

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FIG LEAVES (previously unpublished)

The year before I started my Paris Journal for Film Comment, in late 1970 and/or early 1971, I wrote a couple of prototypes for it for a short-lived magazine, On Film, that didn’t survive long enough to print either one of them. In fact, On Film never made it past its lavishly glossy first issue, which was devoted mainly to Otto Preminger. Not all of either of these columns has survived either, but here is the first entry in the second of these columns, which did. — J.R.

 

November 6: Howard Hawks’s FIG LEAVES at the Cinémathèque.

Twenty days ago, I concluded my previous column with remarks about Ozu’s TOKYO STORY. Since then, I’ve seen or reseen a dozen films; Mizoguchi’s SISTERS OF THE GION and THE CRUCIFIED WOMAN, Franju’s THOMAS L’IMPOSTEUR, Kramer’s ICE, Malraux’s L’ESPOIR, Tati’s PLAYTIME, Demy’s THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, Minnelli’s CABIN IN THE SKY, Mankiewicz’s THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN, Godard’s MASCULIN-FEMININE, Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE, and now Hawks’s second film, a comedy made in 1926.… Read more »

Worlds Apart (on MOTHER and EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU)

This appeared in the January 23, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Mother
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Albert Brooks
Written by Brooks and Monica Johnson
With Brooks, Debbie Reynolds, Rob Morrow, Lisa Kudrow, Isabel Glasser, and Peter White.

Everyone Says I Love You
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Allen, Goldie Hawn, Edward Norton, Alan Alda, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, Gaby Hoffmann, Natasha Lyonne, Natalie Portman, Tim Roth, and David Ogden Stiers.

Everyone who’s grown up with Hollywood movies has a different tolerance for their lies and comforts, their snares and temptations — and that tolerance changes as we grow older. A fantasy that’s easy to swallow when we’re young might seem pernicious after we discover its falsity, though later it may be cherished as a memento of our former innocence and capacity to believe. But for some individuals the rude awakening is so severe that it becomes impossible to encounter a particular Hollywood fantasy again without wincing. How we respond is a consequence of what Hollywood once did to our susceptibilities — whether it made our lives happier or unhappier, offered guidance or misguidance, solace or trauma.… Read more »

There Will Be Blood

From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 2008). I much prefer this film to Paul Thomas Anderson’s next feature, The Master, an incoherent mess with fewer compensations (despite the heavy breathing from some of my colleagues, who have compared it to Herman Melville); but for my money, neither film holds a candle to Magnolia.  — J.R.

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth feature, a striking piece of American self-loathing loosely derived from Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, is lively as bombastic period storytelling but limited as allegory. The cynical shallowness of both the characters and the overall conception — American success as an unholy alliance between a turn-of-the-century capitalist (Daniel Day-Lewis) and a faith healer (Paul Dano), both hypocrites — can’t quite sustain the film’s visionary airs, even with good expressionist acting and a percussive score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Day-Lewis, borrowing heavily from Walter and John Huston, offers a demonic hero halfway between Thomas Sutpen in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and James Dean’s hate-driven tycoon in Giant (shot on the same location as this movie), but Kevin J. O’Connor in a slimmer part offers a much more interesting and suggestive character. This has loads of swagger, but for stylistic audacity I prefer Anderson’s more scattershot Magnolia.… Read more »

Pynchon on the Beach

My review of Thomas Pynchon’s lamentable Inherent Vice, for Slate (August 3, 2009). Much less lamentable — actually quite good in spots — is Pynchon’s more recent Bleeding Edge, which I prefer to everything of his since Vineland. But even more lamentable, in my opinion, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, which even after a second viewing strikes me on most counts as his worst film to date. (I’d been hoping for something more transformative, such as Norman Mailer’s superb film adaptation of his own worst novel, Tough Guys Don’t Dance.) Despite a few glancing virtues (e.g., Josh Brolin’s Nixonesque performance) and the (so far) unsubstantiated enthusiasm of many of my smarter colleagues, Anderson’s film strikes me as being just as cynical as its source and infused with the same sort of misplaced would-be nostalgia for the counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s, pitched to a generation that didn’t experience it, as Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. [Postscript, January 27, 2015: The first semiplausible defense of the film that I've read can be found here.]  — J.R.

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“In this lively yarn, Thomas Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there … or … if you were there, then you … or, wait, is it …” Once again, for his seventh novel, Inherent Vice, it sounds as if the author has furnished his own jacket copy, exploiting the doper humor that’s often been part of his signature.

Hard Eight

From the Chicago Reader (February 28, 1997). — J.R.

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A pared-down crime thriller set mainly in Reno, this first feature by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is impressive for its lean and unblemished storytelling, but even more so for its performances. Especially good is Philip Baker Hall, a familiar character actor best known for his impersonation of Richard Nixon in Secret Honor; he’s never had a chance to shine on-screen as he does here. In his role as a smooth professional gambler who befriends a younger man (John C. Reilly), Hall gives a solidity and moral weight to his performance that evokes Spencer Tracy, even though he plays it with enough nuance to keep the character volatile and unpredictable. Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, both of whom have meaty parts, are nearly as impressive, and when Hall and Jackson get a good long scene together the sparks really fly. Pipers Alley. — Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Magnolia

From the Chicago Reader (January 1, 2000). Even though I still (in Spring 2004) don’t understand what the title of this film means, looking recently at the excellent Blu-Ray from New Line Cinema (which includes a feature-length “making of” documentary) has persuaded me that maybe it’s not such a mess after all — and maybe, like the even more underrated Margaret, it needs to be seen more than once. For the time being, at least, I’m prepared to regard it as Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film to date, as well as his most coherent. — J.R.

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A wonderful mess. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s third feature (1999), over three hours long, represents a quantum leap in ambition from Hard Eight and Boogie Nights and is much more interesting, though he’s no longer in full command of everything he’s trying to do. He’s handicapped himself with the worst kind of TV-derived crosscutting among his (ultimately interconnected) miniplots. But the movie has a splendidly deranged essayistic prologue (which tries to justify an outrageous climax), the best Tom Cruise performance I’ve ever seen (which, incidentally, is a scorching critique of his other performances), some delicate work by John C. Reilly as a sensitive cop, and provocative material about the unhealthy aspects of hyping whiz kids on TV.… Read more »

Boogie Nights

From the Chicago Reader (October 17, 1997). — J.R.

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Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature (after Hard Eight) is a two-and-a-half-hour epic about one corner of the LA porn industry during the 70s and 80s — a seemingly limited subject that becomes the basis for a suggestive and highly energetic fresco. The sweeping first hour positively leaps with swagger and euphoria as an Orange County busboy (Mark Wahlberg) is plucked from obscurity by a patriarchal pornmeister (Burt Reynolds at his near best) to become a sex star. Alas, this being the American cinema, tons of gratuitous retribution eventually come crashing down on practically everybody in mechanical crosscutting patterns, and because Anderson has bitten off more than he can possibly chew, a lot of his minor characters are never developed properly. Moreover, just as Hard Eight at times slavishly depended on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur, Anderson’s idea of a smart move here is to “outdo” Tarantino (in a fabulous late sequence with Alfred Molina) and to plagiarize a sequence from Raging Bull that itself quotes from On the Waterfront, rather than come up with something original. But notwithstanding its occasional grotesque nods to postmodernist convention, this is highly entertaining Hollywood filmmaking, full of spark and vigor.… Read more »

THE GOLD DIGGERS Reconsidered

Written for the BFI DVD release of The Gold Diggers in 2009. — J.R.

A quarter of a century after its initial unfriendly reception, it’s worth puzzling over why a film as beautiful, as witty, as imaginative, and as brilliant as Sally Potter’s first feature could have given so much offense to certain spectators in 1983. The recoil was so unforgiving in some quarters that Potter, after touring extensively with the film, came to seriously question it herself — or at least the wisdom of having made it, insofar as it was already threatening to end her ambitious career in filmmaking almost before it had properly started, thereby eventually persuading her to withdraw the film from circulation. (By contrast, the exceptional success of her 34-minute Thriller in 1979, an unpacking of Puccini’s La Bohème, made with many of the same collaborators — most notably Colette Laffont, Lindsay Cooper, and Rose English — had clearly heightened her expectations.) Now that it’s belatedly becoming available again on DVD, it’s more than entitled to a fresh look — including a consideration of what originally perturbed some people about it.

Even after one totes up all of the most obvious of the possible objections that could be raised against The Gold Diggers – boredom, anti-feminist backlash, envy of other independent filmmakers for Potter’s lavish funding from the National Film Board, pretentiousness, allegorical and metaphorical density, sheer difficulty (as Ruby Rich, a sympathetic analyst, put it in her 1998 book Chick Flicks, `Its commitment to narrative [is] minor’) — the inability or refusal of many viewers to grasp or even notice The Gold Diggers’ no less obvious and unassailable strengths continues to confound me.… Read more »

LOVE ME TONIGHT and MULHOLLAND DRIVE

Both of these very short pieces were written in 2002 for Understanding Film Genres, a textbook that for some unexplained reason was never published. Steven Schneider commissioned them.  — J.R.

Love Me Tonight

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There are two distinct aesthetics for movie musicals, regardless of whether they happen to be Hollywood or Bollywood, from the 1930s or the 1950s, in black and white or in color. According to one aesthetic– exemplified by Al Jolson (as in The Jazz Singer) or the team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (as in The Gay Divorcee or Top Hat–a musical is a showcase for talented singers and/or dancers showing what they can do with a particular song or a number. According to the second aesthetic, exemplified by Guys and Dolls—-the two leads of which, Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, aren’t professional singers or dancers–the musical is a form for showing the world in a particular kind of harmony and grace and for depicting what might be called metaphysical states of being. The leads are still expected to sing in tune, of course, but notions of expertise and virtuosity in relation to their musical performances are no longer the same.

Most musicals, of course, partake of both aesthetics.Read more »

First Look: Faat Kiné

From Film Comment (January-February 2001). –- J.R.

I blush to admit that I’ve still seen only half the eight features to date of Ousmane Sembene, made over a 33-year period as a supplement to his dozen or so volumes of fiction. Yet considering how difficult it generally is to track his remarkable and varied work on film or video that comes ridiculously close to qualifying me as an expert. (The fact that it typically takes a couple of years for a new Sembene film to reach these shores is commonly perceived as an African as opposed to American form of inertia, but I would think the responsibility for this state of affairs might be shared.)

The first and in many ways still the greatest of all African filmmakers — give or take a masterpiece or two each by Yousef Chahine, Souleymane Cissé, and Djibril Diop Mambety, among others — Sembene, born into the Senegal working class in 1923, started out as a gifted novelist who turned to filmmaking at the age of 40 chiefly in order to address more Africans. Yet because he’s a storyteller who regards film more as an extension of his prose than as an abstract calling, one of the clearest pleasures to be derived from his work is his propensity for reinventing the cinema – his own and everyone else’s — every time he embarks on a new feature.… Read more »

Building from Ground Zero: A HEN IN THE WIND

Written for the British Film Institute’s DVD release of this film in early 2011. — J.R.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to call A Hen in the Wind (1948) one of the more neglected films of Yasujiro Ozu, especially within the English-speaking world. Made immediately before one of his key masterpieces, Late Spring (1949), it has quite understandably been treated as a lesser work, but its strengths and points of interest deserve a lot more attention than they’ve received. It isn’t discussed in Noël Burch’s To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema (1979) or even mentioned in Kyoko Hirano’s Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema under the American Occupation, 1945-1952 (1992), the English-language study where it would appear to be most relevant. Although it isn’t skimped in David Bordwell’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), its treatment in Donald Richie’s earlier Ozu (1974) is relatively brief and dismissive. It seems pertinent that even the film’s title, which I assume derives from some Japanese expression, has apparently never been explicated in English.

It may be an atypical feature for Ozu, but it is stylistically recognizable as his work from beginning to end, especially when it comes to poetic handling of setting (a dismal industrial slum in the eastern part of Tokyo, where the heroine rents a cramped upstairs room in a house) and its use of ellipsis in relation to the plot.Read more »

Discovering Yasuzo Masumura: Reflections on Work in Progress

This essay was written between 1999 and 2001 for Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, a 2003 collection I coedited with Adrian Martin and wrote (or, more often, cowrote) many pieces for. This particular piece was part of a section of the book entitled “Two Auteurs: Masumura and Hawks” that I collaborated on with the great Japanese film critic Shigehiko Hasumi, which also included two dialogues with him and a lengthy essay by him about Howard Hawks. — J.R.

To appropriate one of the categories of Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema, Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986) is a “subject for further research”. My first encounter with his work was almost thirty years ago in Paris, where his Love For an Idiot (Chijin no ai, 1967), an updated adaptation of Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1924 novel Naomi, was playing under the title La chatte japonaise. (As I would discover much later, there are two other excellent Tanizaki adaptations in his oeuvre -– Manji [Swastika, 1964] and Tattoo [Irezumi, 1966].) Spurred by a twelve page spread in the October 1970 issue of Cahiers du cinéma –- perhaps the most extensive critical recognition he’s received to date in the West -– I found myself both shocked and intrigued by this depiction of the erotic delirium of a middle-aged factory worker over the much younger wife he trains, marries and loses.… Read more »

True Romances [HAV PLENTY & MR. JEALOUSY]

From the Chicago Reader (June 19, 1998). — J.R.

Hav Plenty

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Christopher Scott Cherot

With Chenoa Maxwell, Cherot, Tammi Catherine Jones, Robinne Lee, and Reginald James.

Mr. Jealousy

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Noah Baumbach

With Eric Stoltz, Annabella Sciorra, Chris Eigeman, Carlos Jacott, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Brian Kerwin, Peter Bogdanovich, and Bridget Fonda.

Two eclectic, youthful, and surprisingly upbeat romantic comedies open this week, both by writer-directors; both about blocked novelists, relationships, fear of commitment, jealousy, self-torturing neurosis, betrayal, and ultimate fulfillment; and both set in upscale, urban east-coast milieus. I had a good time at Christopher Scott Cherot’s Hav Plenty and Noah Baumbach’s Mr. Jealousy both times I saw them, though I couldn’t believe in either all the way through, and neither made me laugh out loud very often. Presented as hand-crafted self-portraits that have agreed to play by certain commercial rules and genre conventions, both teem with eccentric tics and personal energies, giving us the pleasure of contact with an individual intelligence — something that seldom happens with bigger-budget fare.

The eccentric tics in Hav Plenty begin with the title — which conflates the first name of heroine Havilland Savage (Chenoa Maxwell) and the last name of hero Lee Plenty (Cherot) — and include Philippians 4:12 (“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.… Read more »